KITGUM, UGANDA: You do not find many Sydney grandmothers in an African war zone but for Irene Gleeson, who dedicated more than 20 years to giving hope to thousands of Ugandan children fleeing the Lord's Resistance Army, she did not want to be anywhere else – it was home.
On Friday in Kitgum town, a bumpy seven hours' drive north of Uganda's capital Kampala in east Africa, close to 10,000 gathered for a day-long memorial to honour and say farewell to "Mama" Irene Gleeson, 68, who died from cancer in Sydney last Sunday.
One of those was Christopher Nyero, 27, who has relied on the Irene Gleeson Foundation since 2002 for vocational education, shelter, food, water, counselling and basic medical care after being abducted by the LRA for eight months when he was 16.
"I know 'Mama' Irene is in heaven but my heart is sore. She meant very much to me. I miss her," he said. "Since coming here I have gained skills as a bricklayer and had a safe place to stay. Without her I don't know what I would be doing."
The mother of four, who has left 15 grandchildren, never knew her father and married at 16, a year after her mother died. She got a divorce 20 years later.
It was about this time, in 1992, when Gleeson sold her Narrabeen home to live in the war-torn northern region of Uganda where the notorious Joseph Kony's LRA terrorised locals in a guerilla war that left thousands of children orphaned or forced to become soldiers.
In 2011 the LRA committed more than 250 attacks and nearly half a million Ugandans fled, many across neighbouring borders.
The International Criminal Court wants Kony and those in the senior ranks of the LRA for crimes against humanity during more than two decades of terror across northern Uganda.
The LRA, now thought to be hiding in the Central African Republic, devastated the region but Gleeson was determined to make a difference, and slowly she did.
Her Christian-based IGF established itself in the area and grew to now have 8000 children looked after by 450 working staff supported through Australian and American donors.
John-Paul Kiffasi, IGF executive director, told Fairfax Media "Mama Irene" wanted Ugandan children to have the same conditions as those in Australia.
"She gave away her children's inheritance, sold her home in Sydney and came into a war zone to set up a caravan in the bush. She first gathered 50 kids under a mango tree and fed them, clothed them and educated them.
"Twenty years later we now have had more than 20,000 gone through these doors. The first 50 are now managers at our four schools, one became a doctor and four are nurses," he said.
In 2009, Gleeson's tireless work in health, education, HIV awareness and vocational training was recognised when she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia.
Kiffasi said Gleeson was driven to rid the world of injustice.
"Her sacrifice has transformed the landscape of north Uganda," he said. "She has rescued and given hope to thousands of children who could have perished in the war had she not helped," he said.
Australia's representative from the high commission in Kenya, Simon Anderson, read a message from former Labor MP Bob McMullan, who last year visited Kitgum when the Prime Minister's Special Envoy.
"I still have a vivid memory of 5000 healthy children in Irene's school assembly," McMullan wrote. "The image is in my head and in my heart forever. She made me very proud to be an Australian."
Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr sent a tribute on behalf of the Australian people and government.
"Her life charted an inspirational path from Sydney to Kitgum," Carr wrote. "Mama Irene demonstrates the difference that one dedicated and courageous human being can make in the lives of many others.
"She leaves an enduring and remarkable legacy, not only helping thousands of children who attended the schools she established, but their families and wider communities. She was committed to helping build hope and new dreams in the aftermath of conflict."
More than 6000 past and current IGF students, scores of locals, dignitaries and numerous representatives from international and local non-governmental organisations were at the memorial service.
Also attending was Uganda's Minister for Foreign Affairs Henry Okello, the local MP for Kitgum, who stressed the important role Gleeson played for the community.
"Irene had an impact on so many lives in Uganda. Australians must know the work she did is not going to stop with her passing," he told Fairfax Media.
Mr Okello is no stranger to the LRA terror. His uncle Erisanweri Opira, the brother of his father General Tito Okello, who was president for six months from July 1985 after a coup against dictator Idi Amin, was kidnapped, then released by LRA in 2002.
A funeral service for Gleeson will be held at 10am on Monday at C3 Church, Oxford Falls, in Sydney's north.